Samoa’s new political era is clouded by lingering disputes
Honolulu, HAWAII — It seemed like a new era for Samoa when it voted its first woman prime minister into office, after more than 20 years under the previous leader.
But the small Pacific nation’s political future is still uncertain, as the fallout from the election continues with potentially power-shifting by-elections and a former prime minister who continues to try to undermine the new government.
Before Fiame Naomi Mata’afa took office on July 26, the country was locked in a constitutional crisis as her predecessor, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielagaoi, refused to acknowledge her opponent’s knife-edge win until the Supreme Court legitimized it. Having previously held on to power for 23 years, Tuilaepa’s political demise was touched off by a series of amendments to the country’s constitution which upset enough Samoans to lead to Fiame winning by a single seat.
Fiame had previously been Tuilaepa’s deputy but, along with several ministers in Tuilaepa’s Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP), left the party after being unsettled by the government’s actions in 2020. Fiame was particularly concerned about three controversial bills she believed showed the government was “sliding away from the rule of law.” She later joined the Faʻatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi party, or FAST, to run against HRPP.
THE BEGINNING OF AN ERA’S END
The three pivotal bills — the Land and Titles Bill, the Constitution Amendment Bill and Judicature Bill — were passed by Parliament without compulsory public consultation, raising alarm across Samoa. Many believed they were being pushed through Parliament quickly and quietly, in hopes that the Covid-19 pandemic would be a distraction. The bills were passed on Dec. 15.
The Land and Titles Court was part of the judicial system, with traditional Samoan lay judges presiding over land disputes; further disputes — if constitutional rights were breached — could be elevated to the Supreme Court. The new legislation created an entirely autonomous Land and Titles Court system with its own appellate court, which would be included in the constitution and complement the civil and criminal court system.
It was not the first time Tuilaepa’s Government had upset Samoans over customary lands. Reforms in 2008 prompted demonstrations — in a country where 80% of land is under customary tenure, the bill was extremely consequential, according to Iati Iati, an associate professor at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
“There are certain things that are really sacrosanct in Samoan society: The traditional institutions, like the chiefly system or the matai (family) system and their customary land rights,” said Iati. “You just don’t touch those things. It’s a recipe for disaster.”
Tuilaepa said he supported the change because of a 2016 Special Inquiry Committee report on the Land and Titles Court, which found reports of bias, frequent unwritten rulings and a backlog of cases. Additionally, supporters claimed that embedding the court in the constitution as its own entity would only strengthen traditional Samoan culture and values. But the Samoa Law Society, as well as human rights organizations, raised alarms because of the lack of consultation and the dramatic changes to the judicial system. Removing it from the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction, according to the think tank Lowy Institute, would “abolish the application of fundamental human rights from customary matters.”
Iati said the bill became a “focal point for discontent” because of a lack of political messaging. The absence of public consultation fueled suspicion. Though HRPP may have had good intentions, a lack of communication was ultimately its demise, Iati said.
“It became a huge thing for Samoans in the diaspora and in Australia, New Zealand and overseas, because they had the knowledge,” said Christina Laalai-Tausa, a political analyst based in Christchurch, New Zealand. Laalai-Tausa is an advocate for expatriate Samoans — who outnumber the 200,000 who remain in the country — being able to vote. “A huge part of it was through social media. They were then able to influence their families back home, the way they thought and the way their families ended up voting.” The diaspora’s views were also represented in the financial contributions to FAST’s campaign, which far outweighed HRPP’s.
Given that the previous election was a landslide win for Tuilaepa’s party, which won all but three of the 49 seats in Parliament, he was sure the 2021 election would be similar. Tuilaepa “was throwing out numbers, like they were going to win around 43 seats,” said Iati. “Those bills really struck a chord with Samoan people.”
A NEW OPPOSITION
Despite FAST winning the election and Fiame taking office, some seats are still open for contention. During the course of the constitutional crisis, when the Supreme Court deliberated on the election, several HRPP members stood down, opening their districts up for by-elections.
The political system in Samoa is an adaptation of the Westminster system in Britain, including a majority ruling party or coalition that chooses the prime minister, opposition parties and a ceremonial head of state. Parliament is made up of 51 seats.
The election results, initially tied 25-25 between FAST and HRPP with one independent seat, were first swayed by the addition of a female minister to fill a mandatory 10% quota for women representatives. The independent later sided with Fiame’s party, resulting in a 26-26 deadlock.
That led Tuilaepa to call for another election. But the Supreme Court eventually deemed the addition of the seat unconstitutional.
If HRPP wins all the vacant seats back in by-elections and the provision for 10% women ministers is triggered again, Parliament would go back to 52 seats, leading to another potential deadlock, according to Laalai-Tausa.
“It’s really risky at the moment. If it comes back to a tie, all hell will break loose,” said Laalai-Tausa. If another deadlock happened there could be another election or perhaps the addition of another seat, she said.
Such by-elections are not typically held after a government is formed, according to Laalai-Tausa. Petitions contesting by-elections are typically resolved within the mandated 45 days between election day and the convening of Parliament. Due to the contentious political situation, that did not happen, and the impending by-elections are not yet scheduled.
“This was a different case because the [Supreme] court ordered Parliament to convene,” said Laalai-Tausa. “The FAST party went on with their swearing-in and then their swearing-in became legal on the basis of the principle of necessity. So they went ahead, but the petitions still went on.”
HRPP’s remaining ministers are yet to be sworn in, raising questions over how Parliament will convene on the scheduled Sept. 14 opening date. The HRPP ministers are refusing to be sworn in by the Speaker of the House. Instead, they want the ceremonial head of state to perform the duty, which Fiame said is symbolic of Tuilaepa’s refusal to acknowledge the Court of Appeal decision.
A CHANGE OF GUARD
Tuilaepa has politicked hard since his former deputy took office, a conscious effort to remain in the public sphere, Laalai-Tausa added.
Among Fiame’s first moves was cutting plans for a new port at the site of a former World War II-era U.S. port, which would have relied on $100 million in Chinese funding. She pointed out that 40% of Samoan debt — $160 million — was to China already. “We’ve indicated that would not be a priority for us at this time and that there would be other areas that we would be more interested in,” Fiame told Reuters in an interview earlier this year. Instead, Samoa will upgrade its current port with funding of about $62 million from the Asia Development Bank.
The port project was supported by the World Bank and Asia Development Bank, which deemed it feasible. Samoa shopped the project to get a cheaper deal and China agreed. “A lot of people put the blame on China for this port,” said Iati. “Unfortunately they haven’t done the historical analysis of how this port came about.”
Laalai-Tausa, however, believes FAST’s handling of the project is an indication of its values, and that the new government will be less focused on infrastructural development.
“What we will see is huge interest from other democratic countries around the world and specific international organizations will be wanting to work with Samoa, given the change in leadership,” she said.
Upon Fiame’s official confirmation, Tuilaepa conceded but he continued to criticize. He claimed New Zealand was behind the end of his reign, calling it a “feminist plot” led by New Zealand and its leader Jacinda Ardern. “The way I see the whole scenario, it looks like a concert they have worked on for a long time. The fact that she quickly sent Fiame her well wishes makes me think that they had planned all of this,” Tuialepa said in a television interview. “Another thing is, they immediately sent over financial assistance of $14.5 million, a week after the new administration came in, something that has never happened before.”
Iati believes some of Tuilaepa’s criticisms are worth listening to. In recent weeks, many top public servants have handed in their resignations or been forced to resign. Most recently, Tuilaepa’s son, CEO of the Ministry of Finance, was asked to resign due to his relationship with his father, which the FAST party called a conflict of interest. The Attorney General was fired on Thursday and Clerk of the Legislative Assembly was suspended, but Fiame has denied the government has a plan for force out officials associated with the previous government.
“I’ve said this before about the election outcome. There’s going to be conflicts of interest all over the place, that’s normal in Samoa,” said Iati. “Not only because there’s (only) 200,000 people, but because there’s a very small educated population. The public sector has to rely on a lot of these people.”
While Laalai-Tausa said she believes that Tuilaepa’s legacy could be tarnished by his at-times odd criticisms, Iati believes it’s just politics.